Michael Skillmore, St. Dominic sophomore, runs during the school's first...

Michael Skillmore, St. Dominic sophomore, runs during the school's first cross country team practice held at Charles Wang Athletic Complex in Syosset on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. Credit: James Escher

The Nassau-Suffolk CHSAA boys and girls cross country season will kick off Saturday at a new location — Our Lady of Mercy Academy in Syosset.

At least for one season, Catholic school runners will avoid the punishing hills of Sunken Meadow State Park and instead will be treated to the winding terrain of a newly constructed course found within the 90-acre campus of the all-girls school.

The day will feature six races, three each for boys and girls, split into three levels – freshman, junior varsity, and varsity. The girls varsity race will begin at 9:30 a.m. and the boys varsity race will start at 12:30 pm. The varsity and JV course is four kilometers (2.5 miles) in length and the freshman course is 1.5 miles. Both distances are standard for the Catholic league.

The races will be the first high school running competition featuring Long Island schools since last school year’s indoor state championships on March 7. The spring season across the state was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Both Nassau and Suffolk public schools have postponed the fall season and plan to run cross country in March and April.

Our Lady of Mercy, led by coach Bob Schuler, volunteered to construct the course once the league realized it would be easier to run events at a member school rather than at Sunken Meadow, where their ability to get a permit to compete was unclear. The league withdrew its application to run at Sunken Meadow before it heard if the proposal was accepted, NSCHSAA boys and girls cross country chairman Don Buckley said.

"It’s a one-year experiment. Everyone got excited about it," Buckley said of running at Our Lady of Mercy. "If we had submitted all the forms through the state parks and the county parks and stuff like that, [we didn’t] know how long it was going to take for them to approve it. This was something unique, different and fun."

Said Schuler: "There are a lot of turns. It’s going to be a challenging course, it won’t be fast. But we have a course ... The way we’re trying to put it out there to the kids is whoever puts it out there will set the course record, just to put some positive spin on it."

No spectators will be allowed to attend the races, with only runners, coaches and officials permitted to leave their cars, Buckley said. Only one race will be completed each hour, giving runners ample time to finish the course and promptly leave the school.

There will be no awards, Buckley said. Saturday is about seeing what works, what doesn’t and having runners finally get to compete against something other than their watches.

"When they finish, they’re told go off the property, go home," Buckley said. "And that’s when the other kids come in."

No more than 50 runners — split into a maximum of seven per team — will run each race. Races will have boxed starts – that is, four runners in the front and three in the back before the start goes off, Buckley said.

The starting line is approximately 100 feet wide, Schuler said.

When runners arrive at Our Lady of Mercy, they will go through their school’s COVID-19 protocol check and have their temperature read. Once this is completed, they will receive a wrist band that they must wear until leaving the campus.

Officials will ask to see their wrist band before starting, Buckley said.

Runners also must wear masks at the starting line. If they are having difficulty breathing with it on, they’re allowed to pull it down once the race starts, but must pull it back up over their nose and mouth once they cross the finish line.

"Coaches are being told to bring extra masks and we’re encouraging kids to carry an extra mask and put it in their waist band, just in case," Buckley said.

Said Schuler: "Being a cross country and track runner all my life, I know how hard it’s going to be to put something on your mouth when you’re trying to catch some air, but these are the challenges that we have to overcome."

Buckley said that the league envisions holding three regular season races before the postseason. They plan to hold a cross country relay at a newly constructed course at St. Dominic’s in Oyster Bay on Oct. 17, followed by another slate of races at Our Lady of Mercy on Oct. 24. Among those races will be the sophomore championships, Buckley said.

The league championships will be held at Our Lady of Mercy on either Oct. 31 or Nov. 1. Later in November, the league intends to send schools to both the CHSAA freshman/sophomore championships and the Intersectional championships, both held in New York City, Buckley said.

"Of course, it will be up to the school," Buckley said of sending teams into the city for the postseason.

But, right now, the focus is on Saturday and what the NSCSHAA hopes will be a successful return to action.

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